There are rare moments on the baseball diamond when what happens there before the game matters more than what happens during it. One of those times occurred yesterday at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York, when the New York Mets organization honored the late Jackie Robinson on the 59th anniversary of the day he started playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus knocking down the hideous color barrier in baseball once and for all.
The sun was shining gloriously on this day at Shea, reminding me of those best days I’ve had there in my youth when the Mets were winning big games. I also remember moments of tribute like this, mostly for players like Rusty Staub or Mike Piazza. I don’t remember if the Mets won games on those days, but I will never forget the way the Mets honored those people. That lasts forever.
It was only last week that I wrote an article about how I hoped the new stadium for the New York Mets would be named for Jackie Robinson. I wrote of the obvious connections between Brooklyn Dodger fans and Mets fans, how in my family and countless others like mine that the love, sweat, and tears once shed for the beloved Brooklyn Bums had been transposed to the equally loved Amazins of Queens.
There is a fierce loyalty amongst Mets fans, but that also extends to a sort of kinship with the essence of Dodger memory. Besides great former Dodger players either having played for or coached or managed the Mets, there is the supreme and transcending legacy of 1955: the year the Boys of Summer took on the Bronx Bombers and shook their ivory tower by winning the World Series. No Mets fan alive isn’t still happy about that or not looking forward to the day (perhaps in October 2006) when the Mets can return the favor to the old boys in Dodger blue and send Torre, Jeter, and company home with their tails between their legs.
So yesterday there was one of those timeless days of honor and tradition. Huge Number 42 logos were painted on the field, and there was Willie Randolph standing in the sunshine with Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, along with president of Major League Baseball Bob DuPuy. I felt the thrill of sweet serendipity as Willie, native son of Brooklyn and orange and blue in the blood Mets fan growing up, stood there with Mrs. Robinson. How fitting that the first black manager of the New York Mets stood there with the wife of the first black player in baseball, who also happened to be a Brooklyn Dodger!
Randolph, who has the same grace and dignity for which Jackie Robinson was so well known, explained that he has pictures of Jackie in his office at Shea and thinks about him every day. And well he should, for because of Jackie Robinson there are so many talented players of color in all sports, enhancing the playing level and enjoyment of the game.
Of course, Jackie Robinson is synonymous with opening doors both figurative and literal, and that is why the Jackie Robinson Foundation established in his honor has provided college scholarships to over 1000 needy students in the past 25 years. One of those students, currently studying at Rutgers, was there to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Just for the record, the student was white, and I think that speaks well for Jackie’s legacy. He is one of the most significant figures in baseball history not just because he was the first black man to play in the majors, but more because he stood for opportunity for all.
The ceremony was touching yet without pomp and circumstance, which seemed to me to be just the way Jackie would have wanted it. Still and all the images of Jackie that flashed on the huge DiamondVision in the outfield sent a powerful and lasting message of accomplishment.
I know the Mets lost that game yesterday, but that’s not what is important. Ten or more years from now I will remember the indelible moment of Randolph and Rachel Robinson basking in the sunshine, of a young girl who got the chance to go to college and also throw a ball on the field at Shea, and I will recall that day was all about what mattered most: honoring the legacy of one of the greatest baseball players of all time.